The Nationals (25-17) knocked the Phillies back below .500 at 21-22 and inched back to within half a game of the first-place Atlanta Braves. The Nationals have yet to face the Braves, but against the National League East, one of the toughest divisions in baseball, they have gone 7-2. They beat the Phillies for the eighth time in nine games.
Rather than merely celebrate a decisive victory over their newest rival or Gonzalez’s taking over the major league lead in strikeouts or Desmond’s emerging power, the Nationals had to ponder which reliever will close victories.
“I’m going to sleep on it,” Johnson said. “But I’m looking at alternatives.”
Despite a fastball that can reach 100 mph and two devastating breaking pitches, Rodriguez has blown three saves this season, turned a tie game into a loss and twice been hooked before he could lose. He has walked 13 batters in 18 innings and thrown eight wild pitches. Johnson supported Rodriguez, 25, because of his amazing potential. But his penchant for calamity gave Johnson little choice but to move on before Drew Storen returns around the all-star break.
“It’s frustrating,” Johnson said. “I have all the confidence in the world in him. He’s got a great arm. Great stuff. Sometimes he tries to do too much. He gets a little excited out there, and that’s not easy. He learned a lot last year. He came a long way last year and he’s come a long way this year. But he’s not quite there to be the polished closer.”
The Nationals have several candidates to replace Rodriguez until Storen, who saved 43 games in 48 tries in 2011, fully recovers from surgery in early April to remove bone chips from his elbow.
Tyler Clippard has been one of the most valuable relievers over the past two years, an all-star last season. Craig Stammen fired two more scoreless innings Monday to drop his ERA to 1.44 over 25 innings. Burnett began 2011 as a part-time closer alongside Storen. Johnson, though, will not decide on a single closer.
“I have confidence in everybody out there, so there’s a lot of alternatives,” Johnson said. “It may be just by committee and who’s rested at the time and goes ahead and pitches the ninth instead of the eighth.”
Monday night, he still chose Rodriguez. Constant rain had turned the mound into slop, and Rodriguez has frequently struggled in the less-than-ideal weather. His first three pitches scooted by Jesus Flores and his first five were balls. Pitching coach Steve McCatty yanked the dugout phone off the hook and called the bullpen. Burnett began warming up.
“You start to realize the phone may ring soon, so you start to get up and get some blood flowing,” Burnett said. “But yeah, once the phone rings, it’s go time.”
After the leadoff walk to John Mayberry, light-hitting Freddy Galvis sent a flyball to the edge of the warning track in right field. A wild pitch moved Mayberry to second. Mike Fontenot ripped a single to center field. Rodriguez threw one pitch to pinch-hitter Ty Wigginton, and it went to the backstop, his second wild pitch of the game and his eight of the season.
“That was it for me,” Johnson said.
His teammates slapped Rodriguez on the backside in the middle of the diamond as his manager walked from the dugout to remove him from the game. Rodriguez walked slowly off the mound, dabbing at his chin with his jersey, a disaster left behind him.
Burnett had to clean it up, the second time he had entered in the ninth inning to save a game after Rodriguez could not deliver, a rare task for a reliever.
“You bring in the closer, and everybody’s like, whew,” Stammen said. “Take a little break, because you think he’s going to close it out.”
Said Burnett: “I don’t have [a game plan]. Just try to get two more outs before they get two runs. That was all I was trying to do. If it was groundballs, strikeouts, however it got done. Just looking to get outs before they scored.”
Burnett was up the task. Wigginton flied out to right field, deep enough to score Mayberry from third. Burnett walked Hector Luna and started Placido Polanco with two balls. On the 2-1 pitch, Polanco lined out to second base, leaving the tying run on second.
“Just the way we drew it up,” General Manager Mike Rizzo exhaled as he walked through the press box.
The Nationals and Phillies elevated their meeting to a rivalry after the final game of their eventful series in Washington at the start of May. Monday night, no tensions rose, no purposeful pitches stood out and, in a consistent rain, the electricity that marked Nationals Park in the first series never flowed. The crowd was announced at a sellout of 43,787, but empty blue seats dominated Citizens Bank Park. Their ranks thinned and quieted by gray drizzle, fans booed Harper as if out of rote obligation rather than rabid, real emotion.
“When I’m walking to the plate, I don’t really think about that. I’m just trying to think about what I’m going to do this at-bat,” said Harper, who went 2 for 4 with a stolen base and a run. “Even if they don’t have that many people in the stands, it gets really loud. I think if they had a packed house, it would get a little louder.”
Gonzalez never gave them anything to cheer about. He struck out seven of the first nine hitters he faced and nine total, giving him 69 for the season, one more than Justin Verlander.
Desmond made it stand up with his seventh homer this season, trying him for the team lead. “Daddy strength,” explained Desmond, whose son turned one last month. “Thanks, Grayson.”
The Nationals could still smile and joke, because they had beaten the Phillies again. Their manager had a tough night ahead, because he had to make an uncomfortable decision on a closer.